Smartphone: The Ultimate Genealogy Research Tool

Smartphones and family history research go together like peanut butter and jelly.  These versatile pocket-sized devices equipped with high resolution cameras have displaced many of the tools that genealogists have relied upon for decades.  Even if you don’t own the latest model, the modern cellphone is has effectively replaced copier machines, scanners, laptops and even single function digital cameras when doing field research.

Most recent model phones take pictures in excess of 12 megapixels of resolution.  This is more than enough resolution for just about any purpose including zooming in as far as you need or enlarging an image to poster size. 

A single clear photograph taken with a smartphone of a primary source document is all that is needed to capture the find.  And it is not only good for documents, family pictures can also be captured with a phone.  I have successfully taken a picture of an old family photo at a relative’s house while it hung right on the wall.  Don’t let those precious family photos get away from you.

Smartphone Issues

Although your phone can be an incredibly powerful research tool, they certainly are not perfect and have their share of issues.  The good news is that most of these issues can be easily overcome.

Poor Lighting

The lighting in an old windowless courthouse basement may not be the best for taking a photograph.  You need to learn how to control when the flash will be used when a picture is taken.  Normally, it will be set to AUTO mode which allows the camera to sense when it needs the flash or not.

Sometimes you will need to override this setting and force the flash on or off to get the results you want.  The flash may cause your image to look washed out or cause a yellowish tint.  If the lighting conditions are dim, you may not have any choice but to use your smartphone's flash.

When you put your phone in camera mode, the flash settings are displayed along the bottom of the window.  Take some time to learn how to change these settings, so you can turn on or off the flash when needed.

You may also consider providing your own supplemental lighting.  The clip on device below provides for even light coverage, is USB rechargeable and attractively priced:

Focusing Issues

The next problem you could likely face is not being able to hold the phone steady enough to get a clearly focused picture.  You may want to consider purchasing an inexpensive  mini tripod with remote shutter release to hold your phone super steady.  This equipment will reduce the likelihood of getting a blurry out of focus shot by holding the phone perfectly still.

Make sure you have a clear image before moving on.  Nothing is more devastating than finding out later that you have a fuzzy image … long after it is too late to simply snap another picture!


Smartphones don’t have endless storage capacity, so make sure to check to see how full your phone is before setting out on a trip.  You can always delete images or videos after you run out of space on your phone, but that is certainly not the ideal solution.

Genealogists today have everything they need to capture high quality images right in their pocket or purse.  Today’s smartphone has become an essential tool for genealogy research as technology has morphed it from an old rotary dial talking device into small but powerful computers with high resolution cameras and internet connectivity.

Simply put, there is no substitute for the cellphone for snapping high-resolution photos of an ancestor’s grave or capturing an image of a document you just looked up in a courthouse.  With a little planning, practice and maybe an accessory or two, you can utilize your phone to its fullest.

Read related articles: Best Practices


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